Constructing Effective Thesis Statements

Without a strong thesis, your essay will have a weak foundation. Here are some quick tips to get you started:

  1. Consider the thesis as the controlling idea of your essay.
  2. Realize that your first attempt at writing a thesis statement is just a working thesis statement. It works hard to guide your essay but will need to be “cleaned up” when the drafting is done.
  3. Include wording that conveys your topic, purpose and plan for developing the topic.
  4. Avoid articulating your thesis as an announcement.
  5. Keep in mind that the thesis is a statement, so it can be articulated in more than one sentence.

Please read on for more guidance!

The thesis statement is the controlling idea of your essay. It controls all the information that comes before and after it: the introduction, support paragraphs, and conclusion. This means that you should have a strong working thesis statement before you begin drafting your essay—before you try writing your introduction and certainly before you begin drafting your supporting paragraphs. It’s called a working thesis because it’s the statement you work from to write a focused and unified draft of your essay. Anything written before you’ve determined your working thesis is not a draft—it’s freewriting, a form of brainstorming. This is true because without a working thesis, your writing has no established focus or order and is, therefore, an exercise in generating ideas, not developing/drafting them.

So how do you construct a useful, focused working thesis statement?

It’s actually pretty simple. Turn your topic into a question and answer it. Voila! The answer is your working thesis. As this is your working thesis, you will need to refine it after you’ve completed the draft of your essay. Just like any other part of your essay, it will need to go through the revising and editing processes (no, these are not the same).

In your completed essay, a refined version of your thesis should be placed at the end of your introduction. Just because your thesis is the first sentence you write doesn’t mean that it is the first sentence of your essay. If you’ve read “Writing Introductions,” then you might spot a pattern here: writing an essay is not a linear process. In other words, the order in which you compose some parts of your essay is not the order in which they will appear in the final version. Although your thesis should close your introductory paragraph, you should construct it before you draft the introduction (and any other part of your essay) because the thesis is the foundation of your entire essay—the controlling idea.

So what does an effective thesis look like?

As a formula, the thesis looks like this:

Subject + Claim about the Subject + Plan of Development (listing of the main ideas) = Thesis Statement/Controlling Idea

Here’s an example:

The college experience can help a young person discover more about him- or herself because it allows the student to create new relationships, discover hidden talents, and uncover unknown interests
blue = subject of the essay
orange = claim about the subject
blue + orangetopic of the essay
green = plan of development (the order in which the writer will develop the                                      essay topic)

The wording of the thesis must convey the topic, purpose, and plan for developing the topic. The wording of the above example reveals a cause-effect purpose without explicitly stating, “I am going to explain some effects of the college experience.” The phrase can help and the word because implies this purpose by conveying results of the college experience.

In short, the thesis/controlling idea makes clear to your reader
what you’re writing about and why.

While the thesis can be worded in a variety of ways, you should always avoid presenting your thesis as an announcement, such as “This essay is about. . .”  or “In this essay, I will. . .”.

When determining how to articulate/construct your thesis, it’s better to think about the thesis as a statement rather than a sentence: thesis statement instead of thesis sentence. The word sentence implies that the thesis must be a single sentence. But this can make for a very awkward sentence if the controlling idea of the essay is complex, causing too much information to be crammed into a single sentence.

When you follow this method and advice for constructing effective thesis statements, you’ll find your thinking and writing about your topic focused and organized, which will lead to a less frustrating drafting experience.

Happy Writing!

Writing Introductions

Writing introductions is hard.

It can even be infuriating because of the time spent sitting in front of a blank page or computer screen. Why is this the typical introduction-writing experience? Because students typically try to write their introductions first. This is absolutely the wrong way to approach it. Even if you don’t necessarily struggle with introductions, I guarantee you that yours aren’t as strong as they could be if you’re writing it first.

In the same way that you can’t effectively introduce a person you don’t know well, you can’t effectively introduce an essay you don’t know well.

What is the most effective and least infuriating way to write an introduction? Write it last! That’s right–when first sitting down to compose a draft of your essay, go straight to the body paragraphs.

Although the introduction is the first paragraph in an essay, it should be written last. Why? Because, in the same way that you can’t effectively introduce a person you don’t know well, you can’t effectively introduce an essay you don’t know well. Your introduction of a person you don’t know well would be short and bland. Similarly, your introduction of an essay you don’t know well (because you haven’t written it yet) would be a short, bland paragraph comprised of vague generalities.

Your introduction should be engaging and also appropriate for the full essay, not just the topic

You have to really know your essay, not just your topic and its main ideas, in order to craft an effective and engaging introduction that is appropriate for your essay. To really know your essay, your main ideas—and even your conclusion—must be developed. The drafting of your main ideas leads naturally to a conclusion because your thoughts have moved forward. With these paragraphs drafted (and preferably also revised a time or two), you’re in a much stronger position to compose your introduction.

How does the conclusion help? Sometimes the seed of an effective introduction is planted in the conclusion. Even if that’s not the case, getting to the end of your essay means that you have spent a good amount of time with your essay, so you know it well. It also means that any unanticipated change in the way you end up developing your topic is done, so you can write an introduction that reflects this change–and is thus appropriate for the essay.

Here’s a visual of the development of an introductory paragraph:


When you’re ready to compose a draft of your essay,
remember to write your support/body paragraphs, and even your conclusion, first.

Third Time’s the Homeschooling Charm!

We began homeschooling our 12-year-old daughter two years ago, so we are in our third year of this experience. As the saying goes, “The third time’s the charm,” and I think we are indeed having our charmed year. This is true for two reasons:

Reason 1: I am on research leave (aka sabbatical), so I have more time this year to be directly involved in our daughter’s home education. How did we manage homeschooling before without my being a stay-at-home mom? My self-employed husband and grandparents. Also, my teaching schedule is flexible, so I could go in late or leave early when necessary or teach my classes online, and my daughter could come to work with me and do her work in my office. Regarding the actual school work, we were tag-teaming it, with my part of it–mainly planning and checking– taking place in the evenings and on weekends.

Now that I have this year off from teaching (to facilitate a writing program for cancer patients), the experience for me is much less overwhelming and much more satisfying, as my daughter and I are able to be more involved in co-op activities, and I have a more direct role in her learning.

Reason 2: This one’s the biggie! I changed our approach to homeschooling. I had a “Eureka” moment one evening, as I was thinking about how I could translate my classroom teaching experience to homeschooling. I had thought about this possibility when we first started but was reluctant to pursue it because I teach college. Thus, I was focused on grade level and went “curriculum crazy”! But then I realized that my approach to teaching college writing and literature could be tailored  to younger students. I thought about all the things I do to create my courses, including, first and foremost, creating learning outcomes. I first determine what my students should be able to do by the end of the course, and then I choose content and create assignments that will lead directly to the outcomes. I never begin with content and assignments, so why was I approaching homeschooling that way?

Learning outcomes are based on skills, not subjects. Guess what else revolves around skills rather than subjects? The world! That’s right—our skills allow us to successfully navigate the world. What we can do with the knowledge we have, not simply our knowledge, is what allows us to succeed in our personal and professional worlds.

For example, an English teacher doesn’t have a job Englishing. He/she has a job teaching. The subject is the means by which the teacher performs the skill of teaching. When asked at a party, “So what do you do for a living?” the teacher (not Englisher) responds, “I’m a teacher,” “I teach” or “I teach English.” In each of these responses, the skill is primary and the subject is secondary or nonexistent.

From this realization about skills, subjects, and the world, our new approach to homeschooling is skills-based (enhanced by experiences), rather than subject-based. We plan our daughter’s learning experiences around skills, such as critical thinking, logical and quantitative reasoning, reading, and writing. This allows for a much more efficient day because several skills can be addressed via a single subject. Deeper learning is achieved because more is accomplished with less. For example, a history lesson can integrate reading, writing, critical thinking (by including non-factual questions), and research. The learning is also authentic. For in the world, practically everything is connected. All we understand and do is understood and done in relation to something else. Therefore, home education should foster and nurture connections among areas of knowledge and diverse skills.


These changes to our homeschooling have, indeed, given us a more meaningful approach
filled with deeper and more authentic learning experiences.

You Were Born to Learn: It’s a Scientific Fact

No matter how difficult learning a particular subject or skill might be, take heart in this fact: you were born to learn. This is not just a motivational tag line; it’s a scientific fact. Here’s the brainy proof (heads-up: if you don’t like rap, even with positive lyrics, please mute your sound before you watch):

Your natural ability to learn, however, can be inhibited and even sabotaged by a lack of confidence and a feeling of anxiety about a particular subject or skill.

EMOTIONS AFFECT LEARNING  “When learners feel unconfident or anxious, certain chemicals flow into the synapses to shut them down: ‘Danger! No time to think! Just run away!’ This is the flight reaction. Students mistakenly think they have a poor memory, but it is their emotions that are sabotaging them. When learners feel confident, different chemicals flow into the synapses that make them work quickly and well: “I can handle this.” This is the fight reaction.”  Rita Smilkstein, PhD

                                                          Copyright Rita Smilkstein 2007

Thus, it is important to approach learning with confidence. “How can I do that, if I struggle with _______ to begin with?” you might be asking yourself. This question stems from a narrow view of learning confidence. This is understandable because learning is divided into specific subjects and skills, so we tend to compartmentalize our learning perspective–focusing our abilities on specific areas, rather than on our ability to learn in general.

However, to develop learning confidence, we should focus on this general ability to learn, focus on our brain’s natural learning function. Hence, it’s not your confidence in a particular subject or skill that matters. What matters is your confidence in being able to learn. It’s your confidence in your brain’s natural ability to do its job that’s key. Even if you say that you’re not a “math person” or are a “bad writer,” realize that you are hardwired to learn any and everything. Your brain just can’t help itself!

Now this is not to say that you won’t struggle to learn some things and that your ability in certain areas won’t be limited. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. But don’t let your weaknesses, or perceived weaknesses, cause you stress and anxiety. These negative feelings create norepinephrines, which make it difficult to think. In other words, these chemicals inhibit brain function. You can begin to ward off feelings of stress and anxiety by keeping these biological truths in mind:

  1. You were born to learn.
  2. Every step toward learning strengthens your brain.

Brain_Born to Learn post

What else can you do to increase your learning confidence?

  1. Focus on learning itself, not on the troublesome subject or skill. You can do this by watching the video above and reminding yourself that every time you attempt something, you literally change your brain (in a good way). This means that every step, no matter how small or “clumsy,” toward learning something creates more synapses in your brain, causing existing connections to strengthen. So even when you struggle with something and feel like you’re not making progress, your brain is progressing.
  2. Leverage your strengths. This will help you approach more difficult subjects and skills with increased confidence because you’re making connections between your areas of strength and areas of weakness. This will cause your brain to produce endorphins, which increases confidence therefore making learning easier.
  3. Reward yourself! Give yourself some positive reinforcement for each stride you make toward overcoming a learning difficulty. Doing so will increase your endorphins, which in turn will increase your ability to learn.


Happy learning–it’s only natural!


Leveraging Strengths

A significant part of teaching can be spent on trying to eliminate learners’ weaknesses. In fact, this can be such an intense focus that we lose sight of the value of the learners’ strengths and thus neglect to guide them in capitalizing on their strengths. Helping our homelearners leverage their strengths to increase confidence in and improve their area(s) of weakness allows us to strike a balance between teaching to weaknesses and teaching for strengths.

As a college English professor, I hear students define themselves as a student in my class according to their perceived writing weakness. “I’m a bad writer,” I hear way too often. Why not, “I’m a book lover” or “I’m an avid reader”? Or, more generally, “I’m a hard- worker” or “I’m a goal-setter”? I believe the negative student self-identification reflects the typical focus in education: striving to eliminate weaknesses, often at the sacrifice of opportunities to bolster and capitalize on strengths

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

What’s interesting about the I’m-a-bad-writer attitude is the response I get when I ask students to tell me why they’re “a bad writer.” Here’s how this conversation usually goes. . .

Me: “So why do you think you’re a bad writer?”

Student: “Because it takes me a long time to write an essay.”

Me: “I see. Well. . .guess what? (dramatic pause) It’s supposed to.”

And then I go on to explain why:

Writing is a process and processes take time. Thus, writing an essay isn’t supposed to be a quick task, and getting better at writing doesn’t mean that it ever will be. Oh sure, you might get quicker at it, but it will always take more time than you would probably like it to. And it might take longer, especially if you’ve been rushing through your assignments but start to approach them with more care. Let’s put this into perspective:

You could improve your baking skills, but it doesn’t mean that it will take you less time to bake a cake. You’ll probably get quicker at mixing the ingredients, but the cake won’t bake in less time. Just because you improve your baking skills doesn’t mean you’ll get to enjoy a freshly baked cake in 20 instead of 45 minutes. And, to keep a balanced comparison, it might take longer because your improved baking skills could inspire you to bake cakes from scratch and to try more complicated recipes.

Sometimes this realization is enough to satisfy the self-proclaimed “bad writers”. They leave the conversation with a more positive attitude about themselves as writers. If not, I advise them to:

  1. Think of a subject/activity/skill at which you excel.
  2. List the reasons you’re so good at it.
  3. Think about how you approach this subject/activity/skill: attitude, process, habits, practice, etc.
  4. Now determine the things from #2 and #3 that you could use/do to approach writing.
  5. Start implementing these things in your approach to your writing assignments.

“Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses.”  ~Marilyn vos Savant

Let’s say your student excels at math. Have him/her approach writing like a formula but just to get the basics down and to feel more comfortable with and confident in the work. This would mean looking at the components of an essay as parts of an equation. While this won’t automatically improve your homelearner’s actual writing skills, approaching the scary and unfamiliar through a familiar context and place of strength will improve his/her understanding of and mindset toward the writing process. Improved understanding and mindset, along with this, are key in improving actual writing skills.

Maybe he/she is good at a particular sport or other activity and thus spends a lot of time engaged in it. Your homelearner should do the same with writing. It’s vital to write as often as possible. Keeping a journal is an excellent way to incorporate writing into one’s daily life. You’ll find not only your child’s writing confidence and skills improving but possibly his/her emotional and physical health as well.

No matter where your homelearner’s strengths lie, he/she feels confident and happy when they’re engaged in this activity or work, right? Approaching difficult subjects and skills in the same state of mind is crucial to improving learning in these areas. Your child can do this by engaging in or reflecting on the activity/subject that brings him/her a sense of confidence and fulfillment before beginning the difficult work, so that he/she can approach it in a confident and positive state of mind.

In other words, guide your homelearner to leverage his/her strengths.

Neuroscience shows that a lack of confidence inhibits learning. Therefore, no matter how hard a student works at something, if he/she doesn’t feel confident in his/her ability to learn the subject or skill, the brain will not allow learning to take place.

EMOTIONS AFFECT LEARNING  “When learners feel unconfident or anxious, certain chemicals flow into the synapses to shut them down: ‘Danger! No time to think! Just run away!’ This is the flight reaction. Students mistakenly think they have a poor memory, but it is their emotions that are sabotaging them. When learners feel confident, different chemicals flow into the synapses that make them work quickly and well: “I can handle this.” This is the fight reaction.”  Rita Smilkstein, PhD

                                                          Copyright Rita Smilkstein 2007

This means a student can control brain function, thus the ability to learn!


How else can I help you? Please let me know!

Goals, Schmoals–Reach for Values

You may have heard many, many times that to be successful, you must set goals. True (okay, so the impression I give about goals in the title is a tad misleading). But to be intentional and to succeed as a person, not just as a student, you need to first set valuesmasks-827729_1280

Your goals should be determined from desirable values, a process that will make your goals more meaningful and ensure their relevance to your life after college. To be sure, your college experience shouldn’t be just about academics. It should lead you to personal growth, as well.

Let’s Get Valuable!

1. Make a list of the values you would like to achieve. Be sure to leave space beneath each value.

2. From these values, determine what academic and personal goals you would like to achieve. List each under their appropriate value(s).

3. Now brainstorm actions, behaviors, habits, resources (like this website!) needed to achieve your goals.

Now you have a value- and goal-based plan for success and personal growth. If you think you might need a complete overhaul to your approach to college, begin that process here and stay tuned to The Intentional Student.


College: It’s All About Relationships

In a conversation with my husband one evening, he remarked, “Everything revolves around relationships.” He’s absolutely right. And this is especially true of your college experience. The role and function of relationships is obvious in family, social, and work life. It’s college life where this is less obvious–and more complicated.

Before we get into the complicated role of college-life relationships, I would like you to make a quick list of the kind of relationships you currently have, or think you will have, in college. List as many as you can in 2 minutes.

So who’s on your list? Classmates? Check. Professors? Check. Your advisor? Check. Yourself? Ch . . . wait, what?

“What? A relationship with myself?” you ask. Absolutely! Self-awareness and how you relate to yourself is crucial for college success. But first, let’s take a look at the other relationships you have or should have during your college experience.

Your Classmates: Forging mutually helpful and respectful relationships with your classmates is vital to a successful and fulfilling college experience. Such relationships can diversity-1034160_1280benefit you academically, socially and emotionally–especially if you’re away from home for the first time and feel a bit homesick. Hopefully, at least one of your classes is taught by a professor who understands the importance of building community in the classroom and thus provides you with opportunities to get to know your classmates and to work with them during class. If not, you’ll need to take the initiative.

  • Introduce yourself to those sitting around you before class starts.
  • As you’re leaving class, strike up a quick chat with a classmate about the day’s lesson or a university event or organization you’re interested in.
  • After a few classes, ask someone who sits near you to trade contact information in case either of you misses class or loses class notes.
  • Form study groups in each of your classes.

If there’s an older student in class, make it a point to get to know him or her. There’s much to gain from forging a relationship with an older student. As a college professor, I know that many older students are unsure about their place in a classroom full of 18-21 year-olds and appreciate connecting with and learning from their younger classmates. Yes, you, as a traditional college student, have something to offer non-traditional college students. This can be a very mutually rewarding and enlightening classmate relationship.

Your Professors: teacher-702998_1280Taking the first step to establishing a supportive relationship with your professors can be nerve-wracking. But leaving your comfort zone is necessary to growth, and you can’t enjoy college success without changing some core aspects of yourself (more on that later).

  • Introduce yourself: This is a fairly painless way to establish a relationship with your professors.
    • Do this before (if you’re there early) or after class on the first day. Shake their hands as you do this. Also, it’s best to say more than your name by asking about something he/she talked about or making a sincere comment about the class. An insincere comment will be obvious and will ruin the positive impact of your introduction. Don’t worry if you’re too shy to say more than your name. Your professor will likely respond to your introduction with questions that will spark a brief exchange and put you at ease. At the least, he/she will of course say “Nice to meet you.” You will naturally respond and can easily and politely close the interaction with, “see you on [next class day].”
    • This simple act will go far with your professors–I promise. I’ve been teaching college English classes for 16 years and can count on one hand the number of students who have done this. It’s a rare gesture and one that leaves your professors with a very positive impression of you. And don’t worry if your nervousness shows. Your professor will recognize that you stepped out of your comfort zone and will appreciate the gesture even more--I promise.
  • Schedule visits: This is a productive way to maintain this relationship–just make sure you’re aware and respectful of your professors’ office hours. If you’re struggling with the class, scheduling visits is absolutely necessary. If not, schedule a visit to have a brief chat about the class–your interest in it, a class-related concept or skill, etc. Or simply pop in to say “hi” and to wish him/her a good day, weekend, etc. I absolutely love it when a student does this! Sadly, it doesn’t happen often enough, but when it does, it’s a welcome interruption.
  • Be respectful of the class: An indirect way to maintain a mutually respectful and supportive relationship with your professors is to attend class regularly, be there on time, stay off your phoneturn in your work on time, and to generally conduct yourself in a way that lets him/her know you’ve read the course syllabus. Always review the syllabus before asking your professor about late work, make-up work, etc. You certainly don’t want to provoke this reaction:

Yes, we get that frustrated with questions that are answered in the syllabus (By the way, I have that shirt.).

Your Advisor: Typically, your advisor instigates this relationship–but you need to nurture it throughout the semester. Don’t wait until things get really bad or until registration begins to visit with your advisor. Maintain contact with him or her regularly throughout the semester–even if it’s just to say “Hi” and “Thank you” for the work they do for you and your fellow students. Advisors were once college students and some not all that long ago, so they can be helpful with a variety of academic and social problems. Not sure how to approach your professor about a particular issue? Talk to your advisor. Wondering how to handle a problem classmate? Talk to your advisor. Need study tips? Talk to your advisor.

Now, advisors are very busy and, in some cases, have overwhelming work loads. Therefore, you should always email or call your advisor to schedule an appointment. If you show up at your advisor’s office unannounced, he or she may not be able to help you right then. This may make you feel like your advisor doesn’t really have time for you and may discourage you from maintaining regular contact with him/her. But your advisor does have time for you–not always immediately though. So be respectful of your advisor’s time by scheduling appointments and keeping them. If you absolutely cannot keep your appointment, contact your advisor ASAP to reschedule. Don’t simply say or write, “I can’t make it.” Offer some potential times to reschedule.

“A healthy relationship with your academic advisor can make your college life more successful and more connected at your university. Your academic advisor wants you to succeed and can provide you with information, resources, and guidance to help you make the best decisions regarding your academic career. ” Ms. Rachel Klauss, Academic Advisor Senior (Lamar University-Beaumont, TX)

You: Yes, you. You must grow and change to make it through college successfully, so there will be a new you to get to know and nurture. Relate to yourself in a way that shows you have self-confidence and self-respect. Interact with yourself through regular moments of self-reflection. These “conversations” should center on your actions, their effects, ways to adjust ineffective/negative behaviors and habits, and ways to capitalize on your effective/positive behaviors and habits. When you experience some successes–no matter how smallcelebrate yourself!

Elvis Presley, celebratory dance move
Woo hoo! I rock!


Developing and maintaining relationships with the key people involved in your college education will ensure a fulfilling, rewarding, and less intimidating experience.

Who would you add to this list and why? Please share your insights!